"What made Elvin so special is the true essence of his playing is his generosity and openness of spirit," saxophonist and former Jones sideman David Liebman once wrote.
Jones took nothing for granted in music or in life. He played every night as if it might be his last. Honesty, integrity and commitment were sacred values, and he gave the impression of a man ready to die for his art. "Playing is not something I do at night," he once said. "It's my function in life."
Jones also took tremendous pride in his heritage as a jazz musician, which he understood to be a profoundly humanist calling. In an interview with drummer Art Taylor, he called jazz a "pure art form developed here in this country by black artists and which is continuing to be developed by everybody that has any musical aspirations at all or who has even thought about becoming a musician, whatever color they are. I think the fact that it's pure transcends all colors and races."
Jones' death leaves his eldest brother Hank, a pianist still active at 85, as the last of the brothers who made Pontiac hallowed ground in jazz. Composer, trumpeter and bandleader Thad Jones died in 1986 at age 63.
'It was something pure'
Forged in the crucible of Detroit's postwar jazz scene, Jones' unorthodox approach to timekeeping and accompaniment was already turning heads by the mid- '50s. But it was with Coltrane from 1960 to 1966 that his style matured. Fiercely aggressive, Jones created a pulsating web of shifting accents that echoed the complexities of African drumming. He helped erase the line between foreground and background by elevating accompaniment to a continuous yet supportive solo.
Jones reinvented the fundamental bebop cymbal beat with his right hand, breaking up the rhythm with unprecedented fluidity and plugging the holes by scattering triplets across the drum kit with his left hand. The result was a visceral and loose post-bop, a new way to swing that implied the beat instead of stating it outright.
"I especially like his ability to mix and juggle rhythms," Coltrane once said. "He's always aware of everything else that's happening. I guess you could say he has the ability to be in three places at the same time."
The Coltrane Quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner and bassist Jimmy Garrison pioneered a freer approach to jazz that featured wide-open harmony and form, impassioned group interaction and incantatory improvisations that crested on Jones' waves of thunder. Jones was the ideal foil for Coltrane's marathon solos; the two often played duets of up to 45 minutes that suggested wild, cathartic rituals.
"It seemed that all my life was a preparation for that period," Jones once told the New Yorker. "Right from the beginning to the last time we played together, it was something pure. The most impressive thing was a feeling of steady, collective learning. It was one of the most beautiful things a man can experience."
Though Jones' bashing volume became the stuff of legend, he had masterful control over dynamics, textures and shading, and he could swing just as hard playing at a stage whisper with wire brushes. Other calling cards were a swirling approach to waltz time and the vast spaciousness he injected into slow tempos. His solos were a torrent of cross-rhythms that obliterated bar lines.
Blue Bird Inn beginnings
The youngest of 10 children, Elvin Ray Jones was born Sept. 9, 1927. Mostly self-taught, he took up the drums in junior high school and began playing along with the jazz records he heard at home, where he received encouragement from his older brothers. He quit school after the 10th grade and began unloading boxcars for General Motors Corp.
Jones joined the Army in 1946 and after his 1949 discharge began working around Detroit. By 1952 he was playing with saxophonist Billy Mitchell at the Blue Bird Inn, the epicenter of Detroit's modern jazz scene. For three years, Jones backed visiting stars like Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt and Miles Davis.
"That's where I really got settled," Jones told the Free Press in 1991. "I seemed to be welcomed in there among those highly skillful musicians. They took me in as one of their own, and I began to learn how to use my abilities."
Though many drummers left an impression on Jones including beboppers Max Roach and Kenny Clarke and older players like Buddy Rich, Chick Webb, Sid Catlett and Jo Jones -- he quickly synthesized his own ideas.
"I figured that a lot of things drummers were doing with two hands could be done with one -- like accents with just the left hand on the snare, so you wouldn't have to take your right hand off the ride cymbal," Jones told the New Yorker. "And it didn't seem to me that the four-four beat on the bass drum was necessary. What was needed was a flow of rhythm all over the set."
He left for New York in 1955 to audition for Benny Goodman. Though he didn't get the job, he ended up working with bassist Charles Mingus. By 1956, Jones was playing with pianist Bud Powell. Before joining Coltrane in the fall of 1960, Jones played and recorded with leading musicians like J.J. Johnson, Sweets Edison, Sonny Rollins and former Detroiters Donald Byrd and Pepper Adams. Like many of his contemporaries, Jones also fought a heroin problem and spent time in jail in 1960 and 1963 after drug-possession arrests.
The many classic LPs Jones recorded with Coltrane include "My Favorite Things," "Live at the Village Vanguard," "Crescent" and "A Love Supreme." He left the group in January 1966 after Coltrane decided to add a second drummer.
In the decades that followed, Jones led a series of small groups that usually featured young musicians and invariably showcased one or two Coltrane-inspired saxophonists, among them Joe Farrell, Frank Foster, George Coleman, Liebman, Steve Grossman, Sonny Fortune, Pat LaBarbera and even Coltrane's son, Ravi Coltrane. In later years, the band toured as the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine.
In 1966, Jones married a Japanese woman, Keiko, who eventually became his manager and was key in helping Jones keep his personal and professional lives in order. The Joneses divided their time between living in New York and Nagasaki, Japan.
Jones last played in Detroit at Orchestra Hall in 2001, but his most memorable local appearance recently was at the Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival in 1999 at Hart Plaza. His quintet played a blues, Coltrane's "Wise One," a Japanese folk song and Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing." Perched high behind his set, Jones presided over the music like an omnipotent deity.
Music poured out of him, his spirit channeling all of what jazz can be artistically, creatively and emotionally. When the set was over, some people had tears in their eyes.
The best place to start exploring Jones' recorded legacy is with landmark albums by the John Coltrane Quartet "A Love Supreme," "Crescent," "Live at Birdland," "Live at the Village Vanguard," "Coltrane," "Transition" (all on Impulse), and the earlier "My Favorite Things" and "Coltrane's Sound" (Atlantic).
Jones also recorded countless classics as a sideman that belong in every jazz collection, among them Sonny Rollins' "Night at the Village Vanguard," McCoy Tyner's "The Real McCoy," Wayne Shorter's "Speak No Evil," Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge," Larry Young's "Unity" (all Blue Note), Tommy Flanagan's "Eclypso" (Enja) and Hank Jones' "Upon Reflection" (Verve), which is devoted to Thad Jones' music.
Jones' large output as a leader includes recordings for Riverside, Impulse and Atlantic (1961-67), Blue Note (1968-73) and a hodgepodge of labels (1974-present). The Blue Notes are best overall but remain out of print.
Of the others, the vibrant "Earth Jones" (1982) with saxophonist David Liebman and trumpeter Terumasa Hino is one of the finest albums Jones made under his own name. The lyrical "Dear John C" (1965) features intriguing material and the underrated alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano. The hard-boppish "Elvin" (1961-62) reunites brothers Elvin, Thad and Hank. "It Don't Mean a Thing" (1993) is a good snapshot of the latter-day editions of the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine.